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Turning the Science of Human Response into Great Design |

Public Safety
Turning the Science of Human Response into Great Design

By actually meeting and working alongside end-users of Motorola Solutions’ public safety equipment, our designers and engineers gain a unique insight into how to make better and safer products.

One important factor is taking into consideration how first responders might react in an emergency.

Looking at modern gadgets such as phones, cameras and laptops, the designer’s imperative appears to be “smaller, more compact, multiple features”. In fact the opposite is usually true in the design of public safety equipment. A compact, feature-rich design with miniscule buttons could be fatal in an emergency situation such as a smoke-filled building or a police confrontation with an offender.

Motorola Solutions has pioneered a field of study that focuses on human performance in the types of situations faced by people in an emergency. The concept is called high velocity human factors (HVHF), and is used to inform the design of public safety products by taking the human reaction to extreme situations into account.

Bruce Claxton, senior director of Motorola Solutions’ Design Integration team in the US, explains: “HVHF examines human behaviour, cognition and performance under circumstances such as extreme danger, time pressure and emotional stress frequently encountered by a first responder in the line of duty”.

Adverse emotions such as fear and anger, stimulated by a high-stress or chaotic situation, can actually affect the thinking and awareness of first responders, with the result being an impact on their behaviour and performance. Research demonstrates that moments of high emotional intensity can have the effect of impairing the ability to perceive or process critical information; to make use of the information; or to successfully project future action.1

It’s critical for designers and engineers to develop public safety products which take into account these innate human limitations under extreme stress. The design must ease the complexity of using a product at times when communication is so critical, such as firefighting, police or military operations and other high-stress environments. First responders have to focus on the situation, not the technology.

“What this leads us to is the idea of designing for extremes, which are moments that are very stressful. When we talk to our end-users, they say their lives are hours of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. So to understand more about that we put our research team on this topic and we started looking at what happens to human performance under stress,” explains Claxton.

“When our life is in danger, lots of things break down our normal conditions and we don’t perform the same. During situations of extreme stress or trauma, your body is shaking, your vision is narrowing, your hearing is kind of diminished, people are calling your name or instructions and you’re not hearing them – it’s an extremely different environment.”

“So now, we’re thinking how first responders function in that environment. What do we have to do different with the design? … It’s about seeing things through the eyes of our customers. We want to understand the intensity of the moment,” says Claxton.2

By actually suiting up and working alongside firefighters and other first responders in a range of extreme situations, Motorola Solutions’ designers and engineers have learnt to take into account factors they may have never otherwise considered.

For example, during development of the APX XE Remote Speaker Microphone (RSM), Scott Richards, senior manager of innovation design at Motorola Solutions in the US, and the team participated in interviews, site visits, ride-alongs, and hands-on fire training. Such firsthand experiences have served as effective guides for the development of many products in the whole XE family, says Richards:

“It became apparent early in our research that firefighters are often unable to differentiate between controls due to the diminished tactility resulting from protective equipment such as thick gloves, clothing, helmets and eyewear. This calls for features which are easily recognised and oriented for quick identification and use. The asymmetrical shape and contrasting controls seen on the XE RSM became early must-haves as we created dozens of prototypes to test the physical layout of the device.”3

Observing the RSM in actual usage led to a number of features which contributed greatly to the final design:

“Observing how users carry or wear RSMs led us to develop a new deeper clip and integrated D-ring, which offers more flexibility than the typical shorter clip. Other features such as the strobe, unique impact green colour, protected push-to-talk and emergency button all resulted directly from observing and experiencing the firefighting environment,” explains Richards.

In another example, after experiencing a fire firsthand beside Malaysia’s Fire and Rescue Department, Claxton reports that the engineers requested a change in the calibration of the product’s test. They realised that the actual scenario was quite different to the imagined and the design process changed as a result of the firefighter training.

The success of a product may even depend on what is left out, adds Claxton:

“…Remember that the environment is about saving lives. You don’t want to encumber people with too much. So the tremendous success comes from what I choose to leave out of the product.”

Richards confirms this point in relation to the design of the APX XE RSM:

“It’s common in the design world to fall into the mindset that whatever device you’re currently developing will become the primary tool and focus for the user. In reality, a successful design is probably better judged by how little attention it requires. Hours can be spent finessing surfaces and viewing a design as a piece of sculpture, which must boast all of the visual excitement and desirability of the latest consumer products. With firefighters, it is more important to understand the product in its actual context of use, as form follows function,” concludes Richards.

Interestingly, working at ground level can even lead to design changes based on cultural differences. For example, one particular Motorola police radio is being used in two different countries. However, in one of those countries the design has a larger appearance because the police department wanted ‘something with more authority’, as opposed to the ‘friendly and approachable’ requirements of the second country. Such an appreciation for the end use of a product can only be appreciated by engaging directly with potential end-users.

Richards best sums up the success of this approach:

“As we have validated the XE RSM and other similar devices it is gratifying to hear statements like ‘This was designed specifically for us, not just adapted from some other device’. ‘Now this is for firefighters’, and simply ‘You listened to us!’ As we consistently listen, observe and experience, we will continue to be more effective in delivering solutions that allow our customers to be their best in the moments that matter.” ‘‘As we consistently listen, observe and experience, we will continue to be more effective in delivering solutions that allow our customers to be their best in the moments that matter.”

1. ‘High velocity human factors: Factoring the human being into future police technology’, Moin Rahman, 25 February 2008

2. ‘Designing products for life-saving situations’, Sol E. Solomon, ZDNet Asia, 18 March 2009

3. ‘How understanding the life of a firefighter leads to better-designed products’, Scott Richards, 24 August 2011